If you’re like most CEOs, you don’t get the recommended eight hours of sleep a night. If you get much less than that, you’re in good company: Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, PepsiCo’s former CEO Indra Nooyi, fashion designer Tom Ford and Lifeway Foods’ Julie Smolyansky, for examples, have claimed to get by on just four hours, or fewer.
But study after study has proven why sleep is important, and why being deprived of sleep has real ramifications, both for our health and our performance at work—forgetfulness, irritability, chronic fatigue, loss of focus. Although we’re working more by sleeping less, the work we are doing is likely to suffer in quality because of how losing sleep affects our brains and bodies.
To be fair, many aspects of modern life disrupt our ability to really rest—drinking coffee too late in the day, staring at our computer screen for 8 hours straight, scrolling through social media while lying in bed, working around the clock to achieve our goals. Though we may think five hours of sleep a day are enough to keep our motors running smoothly, science shows that even mild sleep deprivation can throw us off our A-game.
When we get less sleep, our metabolism slows. Our memory worsens. Our immune system weakens. Our judgment suffers. Our health risks increase. And this all affects our engagement, productivity and performance: according to a National Sleep Foundation study, nearly 40% of American employees report workplace fatigue, and these tired workers cost more than $136 billion annually in lost productivity.
Losing sleep is not worth the trade-off we are making. We should not commoditize or borrow from the basic building blocks of human functioning—we should protect them. And the way we protect our brain function is by prioritizing sleep. Here are four actionable strategies to do just that:
1. Don’t underestimate the power of a power nap. Research shows that sleepy workers can have a negative impact on a company’s financial performance. Fortunately, midday naps have been shown to increase feelings of alertness and improve productivity. And already 34% of U.S. companies allow naps during breaks, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Some have designated quiet rooms for employees to rest, while others have invested in “nap pods,” cozy bed-sized compartments for people to lie down. We should all consider that, sometimes, investing in downtime may be just as productive as investing in action. Consider incorporating 20 minutes of rest each day so you can come back to work afterwards refreshed.
2. Give yourself a buffer between work and sleep. Having a clear division between work and rest will help your mind settle, reduce the likelihood of rumination, and shorten the time it takes to fall asleep. Researchers suggest leaving about 30 minutes between reading your last email and getting in bed. Being able to disconnect is critically important for maintaining your wellbeing. Some studies even found that emails sent after hours can lead employees to experience poor sleep and increased anxiety. Reinforce that work-rest buffer by leaving emails unread until the morning, placing your phone on the other side of the room at night, and keeping your phone on silent.
3. Create a routine. Your brain is highly tuned to pattern recognition. Creating a reliable and structured routine around bedtime helps your brain establish a pattern around sleep. For example, if you create a routine in which you have a cup of tea, brush your teeth, and wash your face, your brain will start to pick up on the fact that those cues mean that sleep is next, and it will begin to prepare itself for rest. Try incorporating journaling into your routine; writing out your thoughts can help you detach psychologically from work, which research shows is related to less fatigue at bedtime and in the following morning.
4. Get to the root of the issue. Sleep apnea can lead a person to repeatedly stop breathing while sleeping, which in turn, reduces restfulness of the sleep. People with untreated sleep apnea can become excessively sleepy during the day, which can make it difficult to work and, according to one study, result in involuntary job loss. To address the issue, some employers have started subsidizing sleep apnea screenings, with noteworthy positive outcomes. Think you may have sleep apnea? Check with your company to see if they cover the cost of testing. Treating the root of your restlessness will help drive real change, not only in how you sleep, but how you perform.
When we sleep, we repair, restore, and re-energize our brains and our bodies. And when we get good sleep, our health risks decrease, our concentration sharpens, our productivity multiplies, our social interactions improve, and our performance grows.
So if you think you’re at the top of your game getting just four hours of sleep a night, consider what you might be able to accomplish when your brain is rested, nourished and ready for the challenges the day will bring.